I have written and rewritten this several times over the last few months, nothing I write could do justice to the injustices that exist in the world around us and to all of the complexities of every situation that prompts this post. Each is unique, complex, and overlaid with multiple issues.
Yet, I must write. Why would a “big white guy” like me write about something like this? How can a white guy contribute to the dialogue about Ferguson and Michael Brown? How can I write about Eric Garner or Tamir Rice? I think the better question is how can I NOT write? How can I NOT speak? How can I NOT weep and pray when I see the brokenness and pain around me?
If you’re white you may think that these recent cases were never about race-that they were about petty misdemeanors, resisting arrest, or defying authority. You may think that talking about racial inequalities and the urgency of racial reconciliation is unimportant or unhelpful at this time, but statistics show that those feelings are the opposite for those who aren’t white. This is NOT how things should be!
It isn’t that their stories have created a problem of racial injustice, it’s that their stories have brought to our attention the tension, pain, inequalities, mistrust, and injustices (powerful post that captures some of this) faced by a large percentage of the population of the United States. As one person put it, “Ferguson is ripping the bandages off the racial wounds we thought were healing but instead are full of infection.”
Please hear me out, what I’m writing isn’t about politics, government, or political correctness, this is about real people and real pain.
This Breaks My Heart!
I have friends who are African American, Latino, immigrants, and refugees who have shared, often with tears in their eyes, the injustices and difficulties they face on a regular basis in our country because of the color of their skin. Things like getting stopped repeatedly for driving too nice of a car (so it must be stolen) into suburban neighborhoods (where they live!), losing jobs because of corrupt business owners taking advantage of them, unreasonable difficulties finding jobs, being judged with harsher standards in court than their white friends, and being threatened with jail for asking a question when they were the victims of the crime.
I can relate a bit to their stories because I lived 18 years in a place where I wasn’t a member of the majority culture. I grew up in Mexico where, for most of my life, our family was the only white family in our city. I love Mexico and the people of Mexico. Mexico was my home and even to this day Mexico is where I “go home to.” Yet, I remember years of having people glare at me or yell racial slurs as I walked by. People who didn’t even know me would make assumptions and accusations (and felt tremendous liberty to do so publicly) simply because of the color of my skin. I remember the feeling of having to justify my very existence as a human being in “their turf” when people would always ask me things like “why are you here? Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” I remember the injustice of getting singled out in public and held to a different standard by the cops, businesses, even referees and teachers (turns out they’re still pretty upset about Texas and California in Mexico). I remember knowing that every day I went to school I was a possible target for kidnapping just because I was a white American who lived in a city where kidnappings and shootings were somewhat commonplace. I remember being threatened at school with a knife, and later a gun, to “put me in my place” because I was “other” and somehow needed to be reminded that I didn’t belong. I remember the feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and injustice. At the time I just kept my chin down, tried to make the best of it because “this is the way it is and there’s nothing you can do to change it.” Of course, not everyone there treated others like that just like not everyone here treats others like that.
Even in that place of powerlessness as a kid I still had more than many people who face discrimination in our country. I still had privilege and power because of my whiteness and my citizenship. In my case the very things that made me a target with some people gave me power with others. Even in that place I still had privilege. I still perceived that I wasn’t completely powerless. I knew that, barring a kidnapping of course, I could always leave and move to a place where people weren’t “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. But when I moved to the United States 14 years ago I slowly began to realize that, in many ways, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream was still a Dream and not yet fully realized.
I now have five kids who will grow up in this environment and yet have very different experiences from each other. You see, we had a girl and a boy by birth and then we adopted two boys and a girl who don’t share my melanin deficiency (to put it another way, they’re not white like me). When my three boys grow up, two of them could go from “kid” to “thug” by simply donning a hoody while my other son goes from “kid” to “kid with a hoodie”! Two of my boys may one day be suspected of stealing their own vehicle because they don’t “look” like a Snyder!
I know that we have come a long way as a country, but we have not yet arrived at the fulfillment of Dr. King’s Dream for this country or God’s Dream for the Church in the world. No one should be judged by the color of their skin. No one should have to face systemic and societal biases because of the color of their skin. No one should EVER have to fear for their safety because of the color of their skin!
This Breaks God’s Heart!
Racism is nothing new. In the United States there’s a painful history of racism and abuse of power that goes back more than 400 hundred years. This is a painful and real part of our history as country. This didn’t start in the United States though. This has been going on much longer than that. Ever since one people began to draw distinctions between themselves and others there has been a tendency to see some people as “other” and not as “brother.” We see this in the wars, slavery, and exploitation throughout the entire history of the world!
We don’t even have to go back far in history to see this. We can look at hundreds of years of slavery and exploitation in the Americas. We can look at the early 20th century and the genocide of Jews and other people groups. We can look at the more recent stories of Karen refugees from Burma, the genocides in Iraq & Syria, and the genocides in the Tutsi-Hutu conflicts. Throughout history people have found ways to draw lines of division and hostility between people groups, even in cases where there weren’t even clear racial distinctions! This leads me to conclude that the problem is much deeper than even racism, it’s OTHERism, that tendency to separate and subjugate anyone who we consider to be “not like us” in a desperate attempt for power and position! History has shown us that people with power will tend to abuse their power to perpetuate their power and their position.
I agree with Benjamin Watson, tight end for the New Orleans Saints and follower of Jesus who was recently “disconnected” during an interview on CNN while giving his perspective as an African American Christian. He wrote on his Facebook page; “ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel.” You can find the rest of his moving post on his Facebook page.
2000 years ago Jesus spoke to Jews, who had over 600 years of hostility between their people group and the neighboring Samaritans, and commanded them to love others. In fact Jesus said that this was the “first and greatest commandment!” The people who they had always considered as “others” were now to be loved as BROTHERS, even as they would love themselves! He even used a Samaritan as the hero of the story who illustrated His point.
In His death Jesus removed the dividing walls of hostility that separated us from God and from each other. In Ephesians 2:14 Paul writes: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” The two groups that he’s referring to are Jews and Gentiles…an even BIGGER hurdle for the Jewish mind and heart to overcome than Samaritans in those days!
Jesus had in mind a Kingdom where “there is neither neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28) because “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34-35). God doesn’t see class or color, position or power, male or female! When God sees people He sees His Creation and, for those who are in Christ, He sees His Children.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The truth is that our world is messed up and broken and that people will continue to look at class and color and at position and power as ways of separating the “us” from “the others,” but we serve a God who calls us beyond that. Politics cannot change hearts, laws cannot change hearts. Only God can change hearts on the level that this requires. God, who calls us to love and to serve those who are not like us, calls us to see the Other as our Brother. As Efrem Smith put it, the road forward is a bridge of reconciliation. This is not something that multi-ethnic churches or champions of racial reconciliation are called to address. This is something that the entire Church is called to address. Because “when one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers!”
How can we respond as Christ followers and church leaders?
Micah 6:8 tells us to DO justice, LOVE mercy, and WALK HUMBLY before God.
I believe what Micah wrote applies to us, no matter our ethnic group or background, but is especially significant when you or your people hold the position of power in a situation.
Let’s Walk Humbly Before God: Pray for God’s shalom. Pray for reconciliation. Pray for justice. Pray for equality. Pray prayers of repentance for our sins that have perpetuated inequality and injustice.
Let’s Love Mercy: Recognize that you have a unique perspective that has been shaped by your own ethnicity and experiences, so be open to learning from the lives and experiences of others. Take time to learn by reading. I linked several significant blogs throughout this post, but here are some more leaders we can learn from: Dr. Christena Cleveland (book and blog), Efrem Smith, Austin Channing Brown, Brenda Salter McNeal and many others. Listen to the stories and experiences of those around you who are not like you. Don’t write off the experiences that others have had as exaggerations just because you haven’t experienced it yourself. “Mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep.”
Let’s Do Justice: We are called to be people of peace (Romans 12:18), peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), agents of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21), and a blessing to all (like these secret santas). Every human life has value and when people aren’t treated with equality and justice because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity it says that every life is not valuable. Every person is created in the image of God we are called to value God’s image in every person!
I know we are not there yet. In fact, the events of this last year increase our awareness that we are living in the tension of the “already” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God and even as we LONG for His Kingdom to come in fullness. In His Kingdom there will be true shalom and reconciliation and people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather to worship Jesus. In our country statistics capture this tension when they demonstrate that 85% of senior pastors and 78% of Americans at large believe that “every church should strive for racial diversity,” yet only 13% of Protestant senior pastors say that they have “more than one predominant racial or ethnic group in their congregation” (Source). Maybe you live in a town that’s 90% majority culture, so you are tempted to think you don’t have to address these things, but is your church 90% majority culture or is it 99%? Do the people of the other 10% feel welcomed and wanted in your church community? Have you relegated issues of racial inequalities and injustices to “the experts”? I want to encourage you to get involved, this IS a problem and this DOES affect people where you minister. Let’s not engage in OTHERism. Instead let’s love and value people. Let’s do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God and before our fellow brothers and sisters. I want to encourage you to engage with this and let God shape the way forward to the future that He has for His people.
I want to leave you with a powerful song sung by my friend Mayyadda that I believe captures our hope and expresses the cry of her heart and of God’s heart right now: